Chinese sensitivities

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Working out what matters to the Chinese is now an important consideration for everyone else around the world. The nineteenth century was dominated by European colonial powers and the twentieth by the United States. Few would now argue that in the current century, Asia and in particular China, will play a pivotal, if not indeed predominant role.

Six hundred years ago China possessed some 3,500 ocean-going vessels, some of them many times larger than ships being built in Europe at the time. These so-called “Treasure Fleets” sailed westwards to India, the Arabian peninsula and along the East African Coast. Under Admiral Zheng He, heavily-armed trading vessels with crews of up to 1,500 sailors and soldiers were trading at least as far as the southern tip of Africa. Because all records were deliberately destroyed, it is unclear if Chinese merchant adventurers actually made it to the Western coast of what is now the United States or around the Cape of Good Hope into the Atlantic. We will never know because the ruling Ming dynasty took the extraordinary decision to abandon all links with the outside world, turn in upon itself and deliberately dispense with every vestige of its former maritime power.

Ultimately, in the eighteen and nineteenth centuries, a country that had once been the world’s most technologically advanced power, sank beneath civil wars into impotence. In particular, China had to endure humiliation at the hands of Japan and European powers, the British for instance using their naval power to force on the Chinese government the import of opium from India, which added to the countries social and political woes.

This may seem like history to outsiders but not to the Chinese. It is a country of long memories and even longer historical perspectives. Communist Chinese leader Zhou Enlai was once asked what he thought of the 1789 French Revolution and famously replied that he believed it was “too soon to tell”.

In recent weeks there has been surprise at considerable Chinese outrage over two Western advertisements. The first, a TV campaign for an Italian fashion house showed a famous Chinese actress trying, but failing to eat Western foods, including pizza, with chopsticks. Last week a fresh storm of anger broke over another advert that emphasized the freckles of a leading Chinese model - freckles are rare in China, though they clearly have not stopped this young lady rising to the top of her profession.

It is tempting to laugh off such reactions, especially since they have been expressed on Chinese social media, a medium where, around the world, brains are rarely engaged before fingers hit keypads. Nevertheless, there is surely a useful lesson here. The people of China are rightly proud of the remarkable economic and social strides their country has made in the last 30 years. To outsiders, their sensitivity to what they see as lampooning may appear exaggerated but it is surely informed by the historic humiliations their country has suffered.

On top of this, there is a very real concept of “face”, which is felt with more intensity than the average Westerner is likely to understand. However, what does seem clear, given the way in which China has played the West’s capitalist game so successfully, is that the Chinese probably have a far better understanding of American and European attitudes than the US and Europe have of theirs.


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